Dr Clare Bailey: The truth about big breakfasts

There has been a debate rumbling on for years as to whether it is healthier to eat breakfast or not. But according to new research, what matters is not whether you eat breakfast but if you consume most of your calories earlier in the day or in the evening.

Maite Franchi

People used to claim that you should ‘breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper’. To test this, my husband Michael Mosley decided to do a trial. After a 12-hour overnight fast, he ate a large fry-up at 10am. The same day at 10pm, after another 12-hour fast, he had exactly the same meal. When samples were taken, the fats and sugars in his blood were far higher and remained raised for longer after the late-evening meal.

Michael’s results were similar to those found in a recent two-part laboratory study involving 16 men observed in a controlled environment where food, activity and sleep could be monitored for three days. The men agreed to consume a low-calorie breakfast and a high-calorie dinner and then to swap and eat a high-calorie breakfast followed by a low-calorie evening meal for three days.

The researchers found that when more calories were consumed earlier in the day, less of a surge in blood sugar occurred. In contrast a rise is seen after eating a large dinner.

Your body processes calories differently earlier on in the day when you are more active, compared with later when you are sedentary or asleep. As a result, you are more likely to see a surge in blood sugar and insulin. Because insulin is responsible for storing sugar as fat, these evening calories are more likely to increase blood sugar, weight gain and worsen type 2 diabetes.

The researchers also found that ‘a high-calorie breakfast resulted in a reduction of hunger and cravings for sweets, whereas a low-calorie breakfast led to an increase’. What’s more, a low-calorie breakfast ‘increases the likelihood of snacking throughout the day, even after lunch, and until dinner’.

I also have observed in my patients that those who eat a large main meal later in the evening, even if they eat relatively little earlier in the day, tend to be hungrier and struggle more with their weight.

I usually advise people to eat more of their daily calorie allowance earlier and have their evening meal at least three to four hours before bed. However, for those who really can’t stomach breakfast, do make sure you have a hearty lunch.

A note of caution: if you start piling into huge breakfasts of sugary cereals, pastries and jam on toast, you are unlikely to see a benefit.

Luckily Michael and I both enjoy hearty breakfasts of eggs, kippers or porridge and we are also trying to eat our evening meal earlier.

So it turns out that eating a more substantial breakfast and a lighter dinner really does seem to be the way to go.

The kitchen staple with huge benefits

olive oil
Getty Images

I have always been a fan of generously drizzling extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) on food and using it in cooking. It saddens me to see recipes recommending a measly teaspoon or a spritz to fry with.

Not only does EVOO transform potentially dull foods such as lentils, beans or aubergines into luscious, mouthwatering dishes, it also has impressive health benefits. It helps you absorb important nutrients, including vital fat-soluble vitamins, it contains powerful antioxidants and also has anti-inflammatory properties. EVOO even benefits your heart, brain and joints, as well as reducing weight and diabetes.

And if that isn’t enough to persuade you, researchers have recently found that EVOO activates cells known to increase lifespan and prevent age-related diseases.

Store in dark bottles away from sunlight and check that it is real EVOO, as there have been cases where it has been diluted with poor-quality refined oils which means that it loses those important health benefits. Read ingredient lists and check for quality certification.

If you have a question you would like answered, email drclarebailey@you.co.uk